Court Orders Israel to Explain Why It Won't Release Minutes of COVID Meetings

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The first cabinet meeting under Naftali Bennett.
The first cabinet meeting under Naftali Bennett. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The High Court of Justice has ordered the government to explain its refusal to give journalists the minutes of cabinet meetings and similar sessions on managing the coronavirus pandemic.

The government has also been ordered to explain its refusal to repeal the cabinet regulations that let it classify these transcripts as top secret even though only a few issues, mainly security ones, require classification as noted in the Basic Law on the Government.

The court gave the government until November 11 to respond. After that, another hearing will be held before justices Esther Hayut, Isaac Amit and George Karra issue their final ruling.

Sunday’s decision came in response to a petition by Haaretz, other media outlets and the Movement for Freedom of Information. The petition sought the release of minutes of all cabinet meetings on the virus, coronavirus cabinet meetings and meetings of other ministerial committees on the pandemic.

The petitioners argued that the Basic Law on Government specifies the types of issues that should be classified, and the coronavirus does not qualify. Also, since classification means the minutes won’t be released for 30 years, this decision prevents a proper public debate on the issue, the petitioners added.

The petition was filed after the cabinet secretary refused to release the minutes even though then-National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat had told the Knesset they were open to everyone.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and Justice Isaac Amit in court in February.Credit: Emil Salman

In a brief to the court filed in March 2020, the state said it had no intention of releasing either the coronavirus minutes or any other transcripts of ministerial meetings. It said the minutes had been classified top secret in accordance with cabinet regulations and the attorney general’s approval.

The public’s right to know “isn’t absolute,” the state said, adding that this right must be balanced with fears of a “chilling effect” on discussions if ministers know that everything they say will be made public.

The state did agree to release edited summaries of some of the discussions of the cabinet and ministerial committees.

But it said “this does not mean the cabinet secretariat intends to release minutes of decisions on its own initiative from now on,” because this is not required by either cabinet regulations or the Freedom of Information Law. “And in any case, the bulk of the information they contain – the decisions themselves – is released on its own initiative.”

This basically means that even though there is no legal barrier to releasing additional information, the state has opted not to do so.

In June, Defense Minister Benny Gantz asked Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to release the transcripts. He had made a similar request to previous Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who rejected that request in February.

The cabinet secretary at the time, responding for Netanyahu, said that releasing the minutes would deter ministers from speaking freely at these meetings.

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